Gone Girl, Film Noir, and a New Femme Fatale

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About 30 minutes into director David Fincher’s latest, Gone Girl, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, what felt so strange. I had read Gillian Flynn’s novel shortly before the movie opened and this wasn’t the film adaptation I was expecting – similar, but not exactly. Amid an incredibly unusual and mysterious situation, everybody was talking so quickly, so eloquently; there was no time for hand-wringing and uncertainty. What was going on here?

It’s true that Fincher’s films have become more “talky” and dialogue-heavy as his career has gone on, but this was different. At first, I thought maybe it was a first-time screenwriter issue. Flynn had adapted her own novel for her first film credit, so perhaps she was leaning too hard on her prose, filling the script with too many words and not enough time for everyone to take a breath. But this was a Fincher film. The infamously controlling, countless-take auteur wouldn’t allow that. Fincher has never written a screenplay, but you can bet he has a considerable hand in what is inserted into his movies.

Then it started to dawn on me, although I didn’t fully realize it until after the credits had rolled. Gone Girl was subtly a film noir. It had all of the classic components, just updated for the modern screen. I’m not sure if Fincher explicitly set out to do this, but his end result finished close to a modern film noir. He’s even made a neo-noir before. 1995’s Se7en was a twisty, ingenious crime flick that featured more of the classic hallmarks of the genre than Gone Girl.

Setting and Color

Film noirs are typically set in gritty, urban landscapes with most of the scenes set at night, which gives off the dark, shady vibe these films are going for. Black-and-white is usually a staple to enhance this vibe, while contrasting the stark light and dark colors against the moral grey muck of the story. The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are two Humphrey Bogart movies that fit this criteria well. While Se7en isn’t in black-and-white, it might as well be. The generic, seedy inner city where most of the movie takes place almost seems like it was devoid of color when thinking back on it.

Gone Girl is set in suburban Missouri and possesses that sleek and attractive cinematography we expect from Fincher these days – those deep greens, yellows, and blues. This doesn’t disqualify its inclusion in the film noir genre, it just makes it more difficult to make the connection. The big-house-on-the-river domestic setting allows Fincher and Flynn to explore their noir-y themes of isolation, detachment, and instability in a different way than the classic 40s-50s noirs. Also, if you stripped the colors from most movies, the core would change dramatically. Not Gone Girl, which I think easily could’ve been in black-and-white if Fincher’s movies weren’t so pretty to look at.

“As soon as ten dimes make a dollar”

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Noirs traffic in lurid and “trashy” subject matter; early 20th-century crime books by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and others that revel in lies, deception, murder, and doomed love. There is usually a twist of some sort that shifts our view of the characters. Flynn has written a similar story that has become a national sensation. Although her book/screenplay does not include a cop or detective as her lead, it can still be comfortably classified under noir. Alfred Hitchcock (Slate did a wonderful job comparing Fincher’s Gone Girl to Hitchcock) made a living off making films that rarely employed a cop as the lead character, yet featured “average” people doing awful things for money, love, sex, etc. Flynn’s book is routinely denigrated as a “trashy airport novel”, but the construction of her story and themes ensure Gone Girl is actually more.

Even if it wasn’t, many of the classic noirs were criticized by highbrow culture for being based on shallow, sensationalist material. That’s the thing about Gone Girl. It’s certainly not supposed to be realistic. Like I said earlier, the dialogue is unnaturally free-flowing, bereft of stammers or hesitations. The characters don’t say things like “They’ll hang ya just as soon as ten dimes make a dollar” (Double Indemnity, 1944), but the effect is the same. While reading the book, I wasn’t aware of its noir tendencies, but I see it now. This is not supposed to be a plausible story with plausible dialogue. Pulling off what Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine Amy Dunne does would be nearly impossible.

The New Femme Fatale

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Spoilers for Gone Girl ahead

In fact, let’s talk about Amy’s character, for she has been the subject of a great deal of discussion since the film opened. Much of it has centered around the potential misogyny inherent in her character. After the big reveal in the middle of the story – that she is in fact not missing, but has framed her husband Nick for murder – Amy descends into a female character that is as sick as many past male villains. Some have criticized this as fodder for the “overemotional psycho chick” stereotype, while others have praised the fact that Flynn has the courage to make such an amoral monster (a role typically reserved for men) a woman in her story.

I’m not super interested in parsing out which side has more merit (but Movie Mezzanine had a great piece on it). For my purposes here, I’m fascinated by where Amy fits into the femme fatale canon.

Past versions have always been intelligent, beautiful, independent women who were also manipulative, hazardous, and vindictive, all to varying degrees. The great Lauren Bacall played this role opposite her husband Humphrey Bogart in several films. One of the standard-bearer femme fatales was Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Her Phyllis was severely unhappy in her marriage and teams up with an insurance salesmen (Fred MacMurray) to deceive her husband into signing an accident insurance policy, then offing him and collecting the money. Stanwyck is marvelous in the role; she’s cool, seductive, smart, and completely convincing when her character must pretend like she isn’t considering killing her husband for money. Deep into the story, it’s revealed that Phyllis likely murdered her husband’s previous sick wife while working as her nurse. This effectively drains whatever sympathy we had left for her having to cope with an awful marriage. She’s still a complex character though, all the way through her end.

Amy is similar, of course. She is profoundly cunning, insanely disciplined, and mercilessly ruthless. Due to unreal expectations put on her (and all women) by her parents, men, and society, we see how she ended up this way. Not that her actions are a rational reaction to this, but that is what makes Amy such a modern femme fatale. Where Phyllis would’ve never acted without the help of the insurance salesmen, Amy pulls off everything on her own. Where Phyllis put on a certain persona to get what she wants, Amy opts out of that completely, as the “Cool Girl” section/montage in the book/movie make clear (although the film didn’t spend as much time on this). And then there is that scene – you know the one I’m talking about. In one of the more shocking murder scenes I’ve come across (mostly because of the quality of filmmaking present), we see Amy evolve into a new type of femme fatale – the kind that will do quite literally anything necessary.

Fincher makes Gone Girl slick and well-made enough for us to not realize its noir roots, but they’re there. In this “prestige pulp” picture, he and Flynn place familiar tropes in a different setting, add a twisted sense of humor and satire (my theater had plenty of nervous laughter), and form a flawed, yet fantastic film noir. The themes present are dark yet handled with a light touch: the uncertainty of marriage and relationships, the facades we use in those relationships, and the way the sensationalist media reinforces those facades. It’s all very noir, indeed.

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